Winter can do a lot of damage to your vehicle — the combination of snow, ice, cold, and salt can cause crashes, kill batteries, and chip away at paint. That's why you should always prep your car for winter, whether you're in the snowy North or sometimes-icy South. Here's your checklist.
Change Your Tires
If you live in an area that's covered with snow for most of the year, you should swap your all-season tires out for winter tires, made of a softer rubber that allows them to retain flexibility in the bitterest of cold. They also have tread patterns designed to grip snow and ice. "One of the biggest misconceptions in winter driving is that your tire has to stay clean," says Justin Hayes, Bridgestone product manager and tire expert. "Like a snowball, snow-on-snow is some of the best traction you can get in winter conditions."
In fact, as Hayes points out, winter tires, like on the Bridgestone Blizzaks, have multi-cuts on the tread, which act as biting edges that dig into snow — retaining snow in the tread pattern. "Those treads suck the water off the ice like a sponge, so that the tire can make contact with the ice for better traction."
If you don't replace your regular tires with snow tires, at least keep them properly inflated. Cold weather causes air pressure in your tires to drop: for every 10-degree drop, your tire's air pressure will drop about 1psi. Deflated tires also close up the tread and significantly decrease traction, increasing the likelihood of sliding on icy patches. Bonus: keep a bag of salt in your car — if you get stuck in snow or on ice, sprinkling salt in front of your tires can offer some more traction and get things moving.
Keep Your Fuel Tank Full
Although it's never a great idea to drive with a near-empty tank ever, the damage you might inflict on your car during winter is much worse. Cold temps can cause condensation to form on the walls of the gas tank in the red, and if water finds its way into the fuel lines, it will freeze up, blocking the flow of gas to the engine. Any repairs that have to be made can be costly, too, so take advantage of the record-low gas prices and keep your tank full.
Check Your Battery
Car batteries last for about three to five years, so if it's time to get a new one, replace it in the fall when batteries typically go on sale. Winter months cause your car to work harder — the engine requires more current to start — thus putting more pressure on the battery. "A car's battery loses [up to] 40 percent of its power when the temperature dips below freezing, and over 50 percent when the temperature falls below zero," says Abilio Toledo, an area manager with Firestone Complete Auto Care. If your battery isn't old, a simple check of the cables and clamps for fraying or corrosion will suffice. Any battery-acid corrosion (a white, powdery substance) can easily be cleaned with baking soda, water, and a toothbrush. Most batteries have caps on top; if it's low, fill the holes with distilled water.
Make Sure Your Four-Wheel-Drive Works
Unless you go off-roading all year long or have permanent four-wheel-drive, chances are you don't use your system during the summer. A functioning system can improve tire traction on snow and ice, decreasing the possibility of getting stuck. Remember, having a 4WD system doesn't mean you can drive figure eights around icy parking lots or drive faster than you normally would in a regular car. 4WD can improve your SUV's traction on snow and ice from a stationary position, but it doesn't make your tires grip the pavement any better when you brake.
Be Proactive About Antifreeze
Antifreeze protects your engine from both freezing in cold weather and heating up on hot days, and it also cuts back on corrosion. It's important to keep equal parts antifreeze and water in your radiator (a 50:50 ratio is considered the norm). Buying pre-mixed bottles of antifreeze will cut down on confusion. If you don't pay attention to your antifreeze levels, the coolant can freeze, and the engine will get extremely hot. Chances are you'll blow a gasket or two, and the cost of replacing them with labor can be costly.
Keep Your Vehicle Washed
Wash your car, avoid corrosion. In the winter, cars are subjected to salt from snow trucks, tree sap, road slush, and mud — all of which can eat away at a car's metal, chrome, and paint. Corrosion may not be noticeable right away, but over time it will degrade your car. By having your car washed monthly in the winter — don't forget the undercarriage — not only do you protect your investment and save money, you also ensure your personal safety on the road.
Time to Get New Wipers
The build-up of winter precipitation can greatly reduce visibility. Working windshield wipers and a solid supply of wiper fluid (keep an extra container in the trunk) will ensure you have a clear line of sight. Wiper blades are only good for ONE YEAR. Replace them even at the slightest hint of fray or wear. For those in very snowy climes, consider winter weather blades. As for wiper fluid, top off your reservoir with a brand that has been formulated with a lower freezing temperature.
Check Your Oil and Oil Viscosity
In order for your engine to run, it needs proper lubrication from oil, whose chief purpose is to prevent the metal surfaces from grinding. The viscosity — or thickness — of the oil greatly affects your engine's performance. In the winter time, cold temperatures cause oil to thicken, thereby reducing effectiveness, but you can overcome this problem by filling your engine with an oil of a lower viscosity. Most technicians recommend that you change your oil every 3,000 miles or once every three months.
Defrosting and Heating Units
In winter, something as simple as your own breathing can fog up a window. Defrosters solve this problem by blowing warm, dry air over the glass. Have your car checked for air leaks around the doors and windows if there are signs of a malfunction that's bringing in extra moisture. It's also important to stay warm and comfortable while driving, since shivering makes it difficult to steer or pay attention to the road. If your heater isn't working, you may need to invest in replacing a faulty heater coil.
Check Belts and Hoses
Cold temps can weaken the belts and houses that help make your engine run. Although they're typically checked when the car is due for a tune-up (usually every 30,000 miles), it never hurts to have a mechanic take a look at the engine. If something snaps or breaks while you're out on the road, a tow truck will be the only way to get moving again.